Understanding Cat Communication



This post may contain affiliate links. If you click one, I may earn a commission at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Cats don’t use verbal language like humans do – the basic meow we hear can have many different meanings, depending on the tone and pitch used to convey meaning. For example, a low, growl-like meow would signify aggression, and a high-pitched shrieking sound would indicate pain and/or shock.

Understanding Cat Communication. Pickles the black cat lying on his back stretchin out his front paws and arching his back, on grass with green leaves to the side

The Cat’s Purr

The cat’s purr, which begins when they are kittens nursing (used between mother and kittens to help them bond), continues into adulthood and is thought to indicate contentment, soothing, and happiness (a friendly greeting). The purr starts in the central nervous system and vibrates the diaphragm, causing the vocal cords to vibrate. Likewise, when a cat hisses or growls, it usually indicates a warning.

Understanding Cat Communication. Purring. Pickles the black cat lying on grey tiled floor

The Cat’s Body Language

Cats use body language to communicate with each other and us. Cats also communicate with their eyes, ears, tail, fur, and scent marking. Cats have sebaceous glands on their foreheads, cheeks, chin, lips, tail, and paws, which are used to mark their scents. You will often notice cats rubbing their heads and cheeks on people and surfaces. Scratching is also a form of scent marking.

Most body language comes from the cat’s need to be territorial –  used either to scare off enemies (aggression) or to show submission and that they are not a danger.

The Cat's Sebaceous Gland for Marking. Understanding Cat Communication. Pickles the black cat, rubbing his cheek on the side of a table

Scent marking is part of a cat’s communication, it will mark its territory to let other cats know that it’s there. It will also mark the humans that it lives with as well as other animals it considers part of its social group.

The Cat’s Eye

Friendly eye contact for a cat is sleepy looking, slow blinking gazes – intense staring is seen as intimidating/aggressive. Humans should mimic the cat’s eye behaviour to not appear aggressive.

Understanding Cat Communication. Friendly Eye Contact looks sleepy. Pickles black cat sitting facing the camera curled up against a leg in black leggings, with sleepy yellow eyes

Cat’s have forward facing eyes with a 200 degree visual field, allowing their depth perception and judge size of spaces (humans have 180 degree visual field), with vertical slit pupils, which quickly change size and shape depending on the amount of light available. The tapetum licidum (reflective layer at the back of the eye) bounces light through the retina – this is what allows the cat to see in very dim lighting – perfect for nighttime hunting. However, cat’s have move rod cells than cone cells which means that daytime vision isn’t as clear as nighttime vision and cats don’t see colours as well as humans.

The Cat’s Whiskers

Cats have long thick whiskers on their face. These are directly attached to the nerves in the cortex. Whiskers help the cat negotiate in poor light, they help the cat judge the size of gaps, AND they can also detect airflow allowing the cat to avoid objects and determine its prey’s body outline during hunting.

Understanding Cat Communication. The cats whiskers. Pickles the black cat facing the camera with yellow eyes and white whiskers

The Cat’s Ears

Cat’s also have amazing ears – the have a hearing range of up to 65,000 Hz (humans have up to 20,000 Hz), only bats and some insects have better hearing than a cat. Not only do their ears enable them to hear prey and predators (they can move them around almost like satellite dishes), they also use their ears as part of their body language communication.

When a cat is relaxed their ears are slightly forward; when a cat is alert their ears are straight up. In contrast, if the cat is scared their ears are turned right back; and if the cat’s ears are back and flattened against it’s head it is scared or getting ready to fight – this is a protective position for the cat’s ears.

Cat's Body Language. An Expressive Tail and Amazing Ears. Pickles the black cat, tail up at an angle, standing on scratch board with a red background and scratch post in the background

The Cat’s Tail

A cat uses its tail to communicate with other cats, and humans can tell how a cat is feeling by observing what it’s doing. A relaxed cat’s tail will be gently curved down and up at the tip; if a cat is alert the tail will be slightly raised and curved.

If a cat is unsure of something, but interested, the tail will be held erect with the tip curving over. Likewise, if a cat is saying hello to another cat the tail will be held erect and vertical – if the tip or tail is quivering it is a very friendly hello.

If the cat is being submissive or has been defeated the tail will be low between the legs. However, if the cat is angry/aggressive the tail will lash from side to side.

If the cat is scared or trying to look big and aggressive the tail will be fluffed out to try to increase its appearance of size.

Reading The Cat’s Entire Body Language

By looking at the whole cat, we can better understand how the cat is feeling. For example, if your cat has erect ears, tail held high quivering, and purring when it walks into the room, it is happy to see you and is saying a very friendly hello. Likewise, if you see a cat with it’s ears back, it’s back arched and a fluffed out tail, possibly growling or hissing, the cat is trying to make itself bigger to scare something off.

Final Thoughts on Understanding Cat Communication

When you’re sharing your home with another species, it makes sense to try and learn what they are trying to communicate with you. There’s nothing worse than going to give your cat some love or comfort and it swipes or hisses at you, leaving you wondering what you did wrong. By looking at the cat’s entire body, you will be able to gadge if your cat wants attention or wants to be left alone, saving you from some undeserved scratches!

There are some more articles on cats and communication, you can find them here:

Why Do Cats Wag Their Tails

How Do Cats Communicate With Each Other

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share via
Copy link